Conservative grassroots strategy lands Brown in Kennedy’s Senate seat

BOSTON — The volunteers, journalists, and donors who entered the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel on Tuesday were greeted by a kind of enthusiasm uncharacteristic to Massachusetts Republican campaigns. The room was packed only an hour after the polls closed. Among the throngs were Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler, leaders of Tea Party Patriots, who’d flown in from Georgia and California to watch the final stretch of Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate bid. Meckler held up a Video camera, panning it across the room to capture the Brown supporters as they chatted and lined up for food and drinks.

Scott Brown casting his Special Election ballot Tuesday  (ZUMA)

Scott Brown casting his Special Election ballot Tuesday (ZUMA)

“What you’re seeing here in Massachusetts is a reflection of what’s happening all across the country,” said Meckler. Democrats, after all, had tried to turn the momentum against Brown by attacking his endorsements from Tea Party groups and painting him as a tool of out-of-state right-wingers. In a fundraising appeal, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had even called Brown a “far-right teabagger Republican.” Laura Clawson of Daily Kos derisively called him “the first teabagger senator.”

“Clearly, they’re paying attention to us,” said Martin. “They’re not ignoring us.”

Riding a wave of voter anger, and taking full advantage of an opponent who never fully engaged with the electorate in this Democratic state, Brown won the special election to fill the remaining term of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). The result, unthinkable just two weeks earlier, gave Republicans what Brown had campaigned on in the final stretch–the “41st vote” to sustain filibusters of Democratic bills. National Democrats greeted the news with a mixture of infighting–Martha Coakley, the state attorney general who lost to Brown, was blamed for running an “act of political malpractice”–and panic. In Washington, top Democrats worked phones to prevent members of Congress from being spooked out of re-election, while Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told reporters that the party had squandered its right to push through the health care legislation that occupied his party for most of 2009.

Republicans and conservatives, overjoyed at what many called the “perfect storm” that elected Brown, just danced, sang, and gloated. It was undeniable that Coakley had botched up her campaign. From winning the Democratic primary in December to holding a crucial rally with President Obama on Sunday, she had held only 19 public events. Brown had held 66. She made a series of baffling snafus and gaffes, from leaving the campaign trail right before the election for a Washington, D.C. fundraiser to telling the Boston Globe that she’d rather meet local machine leaders than “stand in the cold” and “shake hands” outside of Fenway Park. Even the campaign’s final press release, a pre-emptive warning of possible election tampering, was mistakenly backdated to January 18. When televisions at the Park Plaza Hotel cut over to her concession speech, Brown supporters alternated between loud boos and delighted victory songs.

“Thank you, Martha!” yelled a 30-year-old Brown volunteer from South Boston named Shaun Green. “Thank you for running the worst campaign ever!”

Todd Feinburg, a conservative radio host who’d tracked Brown’s rise, offered basically the same assessment. “It was the worst campaign anyone’s ever run in the history of mankind, probably.”

A few steps away from the stage where Brown would make his victory speech, a team of conservative activists–some from the state, some not–focused on how they’d brought together their movement to outsmart and outspend one of the country’s most effective Democratic machines. Two months ago, several of them had worked for the insurgent campaign of Doug Hoffman, a first-time candidate who ran on the Conservative Party ticket for a House seat in New York’s 23rd district, forced the Republican Party’s moderate candidate out of the race, and narrowly lost what had been safe GOP territory. Those activists looked at Brown as Hoffman 2.0, a candidate and a campaign that learned the right lessons from that experience and leveraged them into a winning effort.

“They were better funded than Hoffman,” said Eric Odom, the executive director of the American Liberty Alliance. “More importantly, NY-23 lacked any sort of a coherent get-out-the-vote effort. That dominated here. Phone banks, visibilities, giving everybody something to do.” Tea Party activists, said Odom, had flooded into the state. A few feet behind him stood Hannah Giles, the young conservative activist who’d posed as a prostitute for video stings of ACORN, and who had come to the state for (mostly unsuccessful) crowdsourced investigations of possible “voter fraud.”

Brown’s short campaign–he announced for the seat on September 12, 2009, the very day that many Tea Party activists participated in a “taxpayer march on Washington”–masterfully wove together traditional campaign strategy and outreach to old and new conservative media. The arc of his victory demonstrated just how the modern conservative movement can boost a campaign without generating a backlash from voters. His online campaign strategist, Rob Willington, explained to TWI that Brown focused early on outreach to conservative media and built on that with technology that let local and out-of-state activists grab a piece of the campaign.

“I concentrated on specific conservative opinion leaders here in Massachusetts for the first part of the campaign,” said Willington. “Right around Christmas, I started targeting some national political leaders, using certain hashtags, and using video.”

In late December, not far under the radar, the Brown campaign was sold to influential and far-flung activists as a winnable race–a chance to stop complaining and actually break the back of the Obama administration. In a December 30 blog post titled “Fight Everywhere: Scott Brown for Massachusetts,” GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini–who launched RebuildtheParty.com with Willington after the 2008 elections, and who provided some software support for Brown, made what was, at the time, a dreamy-sounding argument that Brown could win. “Any chance we have to take out the Obamacare abomination,” he wrote, “however remote, is a fight worth fighting.”

Organizers for both the Brown and Coakley campaigns now know that the race was fairly close by the time that this outreach occurred. In mid-December the National Republican Senatorial conducted, and kept secret, a poll that showed Brown down by only 13 points. As the candidate out-hustled Coakley, he was made available to conservative opinion-leaders. “He did a wonderful job of going from conservative talk show to conservative talk show, getting his name out there,” said former state treasurer Joe Malone, a Republican, in an interview with local TV station WECN.

There was universal agreement among Brown supporters that the game-changing moment came from a source that Democrats mistrust almost as much as talk radio–pollster Scott Rasmussen. His January 5 poll showing Brown within 9 points of Coakley was immediately derided by Democrats. It didn’t matter.

“In terms of everyone becoming aware of it,” said Todd Feinburg, “that was the moment it broke through.”

From that point, Brown became a cause for the Tea Party movement and the people who’d backed Doug Hoffman. Where Coakley had been able to avoid national scrutiny, conservative blogs and media turned her stumbles into major stories. After the candidates debated on January 11, conservative medias promoted two storylines–that Coakley had erred in declaring that there were “no terrorists” in Afghanistan, and that Brown had a “Reagan moment” when he referred to the open Senate job as “the People’s seat.” It was a line he’d used in interviews before, to little attention. On video, it got a prominent link from the Drudge Report.

The heat poured on after that. On January 13 Coakley flew to Washington to raise money at a long-scheduled event with the Massachusetts delegation. Weekly Standard reporter John McCormack, who had shaken up the momentum of the NY-23 special election after Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava’s husband called the cops on him, chased Coakley to ask an Afghanistan question and was pushed aside by an aide. McCormack tumbled; the photo of him sprawling on the ground as Coakley, hands in pockets, looked on, made it into the Boston Herald.

Every negative Coakley storyline was amplified and made infamous by the same means. On January 14, the Wall Street Journal–owned, like The Weekly Standard and Fox News, by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp–ran an op-ed on Coakley’s record as attorney general, putting the spotlight on a gruesome case of sexual abuse involving a curling iron. The story, aired out earlier by the Boston Globe but not yet known to activists, became infamous, as did Coakley’s verbal stumbles. At Brown rallies attended by TWI, there was universal awareness of Coakley’s gaffes and the curling iron case.

Liberals, by contrast, were too late to engage with the race. A reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress who asked Brown uncomfortable questions only arrived on the trail 24 hours before the election, too late for videos of Brown trying to explain, for example, a vote against financial assistance for Red Cross workers assisting in post-9/11 efforts, to have any impact. A video of the viral “curling iron” story backfiring on Brown as a supporter yelled a crude remark about Coakley also appeared too close to the election, after the momentum was sealed.

Brown’s online outreach also brought him a fundraising surge, starting with a January 11 “moneybomb” that raised $1.3 million, that put him far ahead of where either campaign expected him to be. He ended the race with $4 million in campaign funds, the result of $1 million in daily fund-raising. In the days to come, partisans will get a better sense of how much support got from more traditional sources–waves of ads from the Chamber of Commerce, late support from the NRSC and RNC, and early fund-raising aid from Mitt Romney, who introduced Brown at the victory party after remaining mostly absent from the campaign. And any effort to replicate the “perfect storm” in other states will need more candidates like Brown, who on Tuesday night had become a superstar, an object of outright veneration from supporters who couldn’t believe what he pulled off.

“He’s almost like a messiah,” said Deborah Strange, a former Ted Kennedy supporter–although she’d voted for George W. Bush and John McCain–who sat resting her bad knees as Brown gave his victory speech. “He’s given us hope. He’s given us hope.”

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David Weigel

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